The Anatomical Theatre of Padua, Northern Italy, is the first permanent anatomical theatre in the World. Still preserved in the Palazzo del Bo, it was inaugurated in 1595 by Girolamo Fabrici of Acquapendente, according to the project of Paolo Sarpi and Dario Varotari. This theatre constituted the model for the anatomical theatres built during the seventeenth century in the main universities of Europe: all would have been based on the Paduan archetype. It is the emblem of a great successful period for Padua’s University, and it is considered one of the most important achievements for the study of Anatomy during the sixteenth century.
It can be visited at the Palazzo del Bo of the University of Padua . It is the oldest permanent structure for anatomy studies. The dissection table is surrounded by six rounds of carved walnut boxes.
At the entrance of the anatomical theater, the Latin inscription ” Mors ubi gaudet succurrere vitae “, or “Where death is happy to help life”, is visible.
Built according to the stylistic canons of the Renaissance, the inverted cone-shaped theater has an elliptical plan and is arranged in six parallel brackets each equipped with a wooden railing high m. 1.07. The diameter of the upper echelon at its widest point is m. 7.56 and at its narrowest point of m. 6.92, the diameter of the lowest echelon is respectively m. 3.49 and m. 2.97. This last band is high from the ground m. 1.84. The space that in each group is available to the public, between the balustrade and the base of the next group, is 40 cm.
Until 1844 the theater was artificially illuminated as the windows of the room in which it was located were closed. The light was given by two candlesticks placed at the end of the anatomical table and by eight candles which were held by as many students sitting on mobile benches. Initially the desk where the body was placed and where the lesson took place was located at the floor of the room. The current wooden stalls, which are about two meters high above the ground, were arranged in 1845 by the then professor of anatomy Cortese who also had the carved walnut railings, which were previously polished, dyed white and open the windows to illuminate the theater with daylight. ‘
Over the years the theater has not undergone any modification.
Anatomy studies were, starting from the 16th century, always accompanied by a temporary theater. In Padua in 1583 one was built, the last one before the stable one, which cost 133 Venetian lire and 16 denier for timber. The theater was dismantled every year and stored in the warehouse to be subsequently reassembled in one of the classrooms on the upper floor of the Bo. Antonio Rosato, janitor of the university, will take care of the aforementioned tasks until 1594, when the stable theater will be built.
The foundation: Padua and the tradition of dissections
“1222. Messer Giovanni Rusca of Como, podestà of Padua. In this period the studium of Bologna was transferred to Padua, and on Christmas Day after mass there was a great earthquake.”
This caption attests the foundation date, traditionally accepted for the origins of the University of Padua.
The events that led to the construction of the Theatre could be dated back to the thirteenth century, when Pietro d’Abano performed the first autopsy we have records for in Padua.
Pietro d’Abano (c.1250- c.1315), was called to Padua from Paris as a teacher of Medicine, Philosophy and Judicial astrology. His early studies in Constantinople allowed him to translate some of Galen’s works from Greek to Latin: thanks to his work, the fame of the Studium spread rapidly throughout Italy.
It is worth noting that in Padua already existed a well established practice of dissection since the end of the thirteenth century. In fact, a traditional legend hands down the story of avaricious man’s heart found in a basket by St. Anthony; the heart is described in a scientific way, and that shows how the direct observation of the corpses was already considered essential.
In the fifteenth century, the Padua Studium, like others, had three fundamental chairs of medicine: Theoretical medicine, Practical medicine, and Surgery. Albeit the Surgery teacher was expected to act as incisor in the anatomical demonstrations, only in the late sixteenth century he was formally charged with the teaching of Anatomy.
The first European public dissection
In 1404, during his stay in Vienna, Galeazzo di Santa Sofia undertook the first solemn public dissection, a practice he had obviously first seen and carried out in Padua.
Moritz Roth, the great Vesalius Scholar, observes:
“If we think that the first dissection undertaken in Vienna was carried out by a professor from Padua, we have the impression that in the fifteenth century Padua at least reached the level of Bologna, if not actually overtaking it.”
Alessandro Benedetti and his temporary theatre
The turning point would have happened thanks to the contribution of Alessandro Benedetti, an Italian anatomist: in 1514, Anatomice sive historia corporis humani, the main of his works, was reprinted in Paris. This allowed the spread of his directives for the construction and the organization of a temporary wooden anatomical theatre, which Benedetti himself used and supported. According to him, anatomy should have been able to make medicine a more evincible science. In fact, direct observation was becoming even more important than theoretical studies.
From Vesalius to the Anatomical theatre
In this stimulating atmosphere Andreas Vesalius, a Flemish anatomist, came to Padua (1537–38) and wrote De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, in which he introduced the demonstrative method in Medicine. This implied an active involvement in studying anatomy, now based on the direct observation and verification of theories: henceforward, it became a habit for students not only to read books, but also to approach the subjects physically.
Since the late 1530s, when Vesalius got the chair of Surgery, dissections were carried out on corpses of dead criminals, but also on monkeys and dogs, in a temporary wooden anatomical theatre. Moreover, Vesalius published his first Tabulae anatomicae, drawn together with a scholar of Titian. In this way, the De humani corporis fabrica, already mentioned, became a real piece of art, in which text was enriched with detailed depictions of dissected bodies. According to the ancient tradition just described, it seems almost natural that the first permanent anatomical theatre was built in Padua.
It is also important to point out that its construction is linked to Fabrici d’Acquapendente, an Italian physiologist, who held the chair of surgery and anatomy in the Padua Studium for fifty years. Fabrici in fact, in continuity with his predecessors, such as Benedetti and Vesalius, strongly supported the practical approach to anatomy as a means of effectiveness in the study of the subject.
Architecture and main renovations
The architecture of the theatre reminds a funnel: it is an inverted cone inserted in a cylinder, arranged in steps to welcome the students.
In 1739, Charles de Brosses observed that the theatre
“was built as a well, where up to five hundred students could seat to attend the lesson.”
This idea of a well, probably too tight, was taken again in 1827, when in different archival documents it was suggested that lessons for Medicine’s student and Surgery’s ones should have been separated.
In origin, the theatre was built on two overlapping floors, and the entrance was on the first one, which was an open gallery. In 1822, the first intervention involved the building of a new room and the endowment of a new equipment. In the same period, renovations concerned also the construction of a different roof with a five-meters skylight, in order to adapt the room to daylight. In fact, previously the theatre was not enlightened by the eight windows on the walls, because of the numerous flights of stairs that obscured the sunlight.
Furthermore, in 1841 the president of University required an improvement in the corpses’ storage: within a year, it was transformed in a wooden terrace, used to put bones. In the following years, professor Francesco Cortese hinted small changes, such as floor rise, whitening of the railings and installation of a new desk, provided with a simple raising mechanism.
In 1845, fundamental details remained to fix: they essentially related to the ventilation, a problem clearly linked to the presence of corpses, the smell of which made the air unbreathable. Speaking of this, the University president wrote also about the temperature situation: “sunbeams heats the theatre, so as to make it impossible to stay”. Due to wind, “the roof let the rain fall abundantly”. Finally, February 13, 1848 was the official date of the end of the works.
However, on 1872, the theatre lost its function because the medical school was transferred to St. Mattia’s former convent. In this situation, the theatre changed also part of its aspect: for example, the roof was demolished for security reasons and rebuilt without the skylight, which now is no longer useful for lessons.
The survival in last century
Since the beginning of last century, the problem linked to a possible reorganization of the theatre was very much present in the academic debate. Different projects were proposed, but the current arrangement has been realized by works of the architect Fagiuoli and the engineer Ronca. Moreover, it is important to underline that the architect Giò Ponti has the merit of restructuring of interior spaces, thus giving the present appearance to the building.
Finally, it is worth noting that nowadays the theatre keep its original funnel shape, with reference to its real function.
Value and Symbolism
It is known that dissections were carried out by professors in their private houses or in the ones of their students until the eighteenth century, even after the introduction of anatomical theatres. This shows that the increase of students more than the necessity of cutting-edge equipment lead to the construction of the theatre.
Anatomy’s lessons were a matter of pride for the University. The possibility to observe and have experience of a real dissection made the students elated. They could not take notes but only learn by watching. The typical funnel shape had the function to use practical experience as a mean to discover man. In fact, it seems that its shape projects the students’ look towards the deepest aspects of human anatomy. Moreover, it is interesting that in the theatre the ones who held the chair were bound to be below the students, working near them, and not on a desk impending over them.
Furthermore, anatomy’s lessons were the only practice ones in the study of Medicine, and the theatre made them look like a real ceremony. The theatre is also linked to the number seven. Its rings, seven in number, could be reattached to the seven skies of Empireum, or the seven pits of Hell of Dante’s Comedy.
The dissection of the corpses was performed on a special table. Originally the environment was also equipped with a mobile roof that allowed the escape of bad smells generated by the operations.
In 1861 a connecting room was added to the theater in order to allow students to practice. The corpses selected for the lessons were exclusively condemned to death. To allow the regular running of the lessons, the so-called massari were appointed, responsible for the recovery of the corpses. They must have been two students who had already completed two years of medical study. Especially in the past they had the task of assisting the professor during the lessons, of providing the necessary theater and tools, of establishing the amount to be paid during the lessons. A decree of the doge Marino Grimaniof September 24, 1596 established that the lessons were free for all students of the University. The massari consequently ended up taking care of finding the money, while maintaining all the other tasks that were carried out up to the end of the 18th century.
The seats of the anatomical theater were divided as follows: on one side of the anatomical table was the professor, seated on a carved walnut chair that is still preserved today. The massari stood behind him on small stools. On the other side of the table, in the carpet-covered stalls, a row of chairs was placed on which the rectors of the city, the rector of the Studio and some noblemen took their seats. Behind them stood readers of the university and members of the city’s medical college. Due to the limited space, some settled in the small cells under the first turn of the theater, called “places from below”, which had small windows. In the first round of the theater there were the advisers of the nations, while the students, from whom the freshmen were excluded,
Before the beginning of the lesson, the body was covered with a funeral cloth and had its head wrapped in a black veil. When the professor entered, a servant discovered the corpse and placed two candelabra with three candles at the two ends of the table, while everything else remained in the dark.
To make the atmosphere less gloomy, as far as possible, it was frequent to accompany the lesson with the execution of live music.
University of Padua
The University of Padua is an Italian university located in the city of Padua, Italy. The University of Padua was founded in 1222 as a school of law. Padua is the second-oldest university in Italy and the world’s fifth-oldest surviving university. In 2010 the university had approximately 65,000 students, in 2016 was ranked “best university” among Italian institutions of higher education with more than 40,000 students, and in 2018 best Italian university according to ARWU ranking.
The university is conventionally said to have been founded in 1222 (which corresponds to the first time when the University is cited in a historical document as pre-existing, therefore it is quite certainly older) when a large group of students and professors left the University of Bologna in search of more academic freedom (‘Libertas scholastica’). The first subjects to be taught were law and theology. The curriculum expanded rapidly, and by 1399 the institution had divided in two: a Universitas Iuristarum for civil law and Canon law, and a Universitas Artistarum which taught astronomy, dialectic, philosophy, grammar, medicine, and rhetoric. There was also a Universitas Theologorum, established in 1373 by Urban V.
The university is constantly ranked among the best Italian universities. In 2016 was ranked “best university” among Italian institutions of higher education with more than 40,000 students, and in 2018 best Italian university according to ARWU ranking.
The University of Padua is also recognized in international rankings. In the 2019 CWUR ranking it is ranked 160th worldwide (2nd in Italy only after the University of Rome – La Sapienza). In the 2019 US News World Ranking the University of Padua is ranked 122th (tied with the University of Bologna as the best Italian) and 48th in Europe.